Most ciabatta recipes start with a preferment called a poolish, a mixture of flour, water and yeast that is left to sit for a period of time – usually 12 to 24 hours – before the rest of the dough is put together. Starting a ciabatta this way will add a lot of flavor to the dough and it will also add a certain degree of suppleness to a dough, which you need to produce a holey-ciabatta bread. Another type of preferment is a sourdough starter and I have found that it also works very well as a starter for ciabatta – and as someone who has been keeping a sourdough starter alive in my kitchen for a long time, I always appreciate a new way to put it to use. And since I always have my sourdough starter on hand, I don’t need to wait the 12 to 24 hours that a poolish takes to develop before baking my bread.
I first found a recipe for sourdough ciabatta on the King Arthur Flour site (they also have a recipe for ciabatta without sourdough), but it took a few tweaks to get it to the consistency that I liked. My dough uses just water, bread flour, olive oil and salt, along with some active dry yeast to give it extra lift. Make sure that your sourdough starter has been fed and is active before you mix it into the dough. My sourdough starter is quite thick, but they vary in consistency, so you will need to gradually add in the last cup of flour to the bread dough before letting it rise, as some doughs will need more additional flour than others.
The original recipe suggests that the dough should have the consistency of drop-cookie batter, thick and slightly sticky but not dry or firm. If you add too much flour, your bread will be a bit denser. If you don’t add enough, the dough will be too slack and will be very difficult to handle. The trick is not to add too much flour to the dough and use a lot when you are handling it (as well as having a big bench scraper on hand) to ensure it doesn’t stick. To test my dough, I press it with my fingertip: it should feel sticky but should hold together, not stick to my finger. After my dough rises, I quickly deflate it and very gently shape it. I let it proof right on the baking sheet I am going to use so it is ready to go into the oven without needing to be moved again.
This ciabatta is not quite as holey as some ciabattas that I’ve had, but it has a chewy crumb and a nice crispy crust to it. It has a hint of sourdough flavor to it, and since it has a little more body than some more open-textured ciabattas, it slices and toasts very well. You can also put this bread to use as you would other ciabatta breads, making sandwiches and paninis or dipping in olive oil and serving alongside good cheese and prosciutto.